Practical advice, Costa Rica

Costa Rica


10 Things you should know before you go

Family vacation to Costa Rica sloth

Why go?

I’m a big fan of Costa Rica. The country is blessed with great weather, gracious and friendly people, and a biodiversity that’s the envy of the world. It also has a wide variety of activities to suit any family, no matter the age of your kids. With a well-developed ecotourism business, it makes for an ideal international destination, especially if your family is traveling abroad for the first time.

So let’s get down to the basics. Here’s some nitty gritty details that you’ll want to know before you head to Costa Rica to experience “¡Pura Vida!” - the simple life.

1/Family-friendly immigration lines

Finally, a country that understands that the last thing a parent with young children in tow wants to see after getting off a multi-hour international flight is a long line at immigration. Fear not, my stroller-pushing friends! Look for the line on the far right of the immigration area. It’s marked for disabled passengers. However, the attendant at the entrance to the line will wave you in. No attendant? Use the line anyway. I doubt anyone will stop you.

KidTripster Tip: Don’t want to haul your stroller, car seat, and pack ’n play from home. If you book your vacation with Costa Rica Family Holidays, owners Emilio Zúñiga and Stephanie Sheehy, who are parents themselves, will provide everything. They’ll even go shopping for your preferred baby food, formula, and diapers prior to your arrival, so that everything will be ready in your hotel room when you arrive.

2/No need for local currency

The colón is the official currency of Costa Rica, but you won’t need to use it. Nearly every business takes credit cards or U.S. dollars. However, if you do use cash, you’ll likely get your change in the local currency. And if you decide to purchase something from a vendor on the street, be prepared to pay by U.S. dollars, not a credit card.

3/Ticos & their towels

Ticos (the term that Costa Ricans use to describe themselves) have a thing about towels. They must be precious because getting one at your hotel can be maddening. First, expect to find the bare minimum of towels in your bathroom. Nope, no stack of extras on the shelf over the toilet. And if you want a towel for the pool or hot springs, it’s a process that involves leaving a credit card deposit at the front desk. And don’t dare leave that towel poolside or even in your room. It has to be returned to the front desk or else you’ll be charged.

And by the way, the towels aren’t even fluffy!

4/Condition of bathrooms

While we’re on the subject of towels, let me offer this word about bathrooms, specifically public bathrooms. For the most part, the bathrooms at restaurants and attractions actually are quite nice - dare I say, nicer than most public restrooms in the USA. However, nearly all of them have signs that request that you don’t flush toilet paper; instead you’ll find a trash can next to the toilet for used paper.

KidTripster Tip: Hunting for a soap dish in your hotel shower. You likely won’t find one. I have no logical explanation for that one.

5/Hots springs are really hot

Hot springs in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has seven volcanos and all of them have hot springs in the surrounding areas. Hotels and resorts have capitalized on the hot pools and incorporated them into their properties. Typically, you’ll find several pools at each hotel. The ones that are uphill and closer to the volcano will be hotter than the ones below. I don’t have a high tolerance for superheated water despite the presence of medicinal minerals, nor might your kids. Wherever you decide to stay, make sure the hotel also has a standard temperature swimming pool for them.

6/Bugs, big bugs

Costa Rica is a true Garden of Eden, but even paradise has bugs, specifically mosquitos. You’ll want to bring some bug spray or lotion. I’ll admit that I didn’t want to mess around, so I used a product that did contain DEET. However, others in my group had good success using essential oils like citronella and peppermint.

7/Tools for wildlife viewing

Scarlett Macaws in Costa Rica

With 500,000 species in Costa Rica, you will see wildlife. And you don’t have to be in a national park to spot it! Our guide spied toucans in the tops of trees while simply driving down the road. We also saw dozens of large, green iguanas in the trees when we stopped to get ice cream. But some of the animals - like the two- and three-toed sloths - can be tricky to spot. It pays to bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens. (You’ll definitely want a good camera on your trip to Costa Rica!)

Also, I highly recommend taking a guided night walk at a place like La Selva Biological Station or Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. Bring a flashlight and keep a lookout (and listen) for Costa Rica’s über colorful poison dart frogs. They’re tiny!

KidTripster Tip: Recognizing a bird’s call or a frog’s croak is a true skill. That’s why I recommend using a guide on any nature walk. You and your kids will get far more value out of the experience. We found our guide Diego with Costa Rica Family Holidays to be a walking Wikipedia not to mention a bird whisperer.

8/Working up a sweat

Weather conditions, especially in the rainforest regions, are ever-changing. One minute, you’ll need a light sweater, the next you’ll be grabbing for your rain jacket, and five minutes later, you’ll be peeling it all off. But in general, plan your activities for early in the morning and late in the afternoon with a break mid-day out of the sun.

9/Food is so-so

While many parts of your Costa Rican vacation will be world-class, the food isn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong; the food isn’t bad, but I would describe it as bland and somewhat repetitive. You’ll eat a lot of rice and beans and chayote salad and tortillas… and then repeat. Of course, there are notable exceptions like the amazing strawberry shakes at Freddo Fresas in Alajuela Province and everything on the nuevo cuisine menu at Don Rufino Restaurante in La Fortuna. You’ll find meals to be reasonably-priced in most restaurants.

10/Coffee is king

Coffee cherries in Costa Rica

The one thing that Costa Rica does better than nearly any other country in the world is coffee. By law, farmers can only grow one type of coffee beans in Costa Rica: the high-quality Arabica beans. But the bean and its taste will vary depending on the farm’s elevation. If you’re a coffee lover, visit a plantation like Espiritu Santos Coffee in Naranjo for an educational tour.

KidTripster Tip: Don’t buy your coffee to bring home at the plantation or the airport. Stop at a regular grocery store and buy like a local. It’s the same coffee at a much better price.

Need help planning your Costa Rican vacation? Read the 7 things to consider here.

Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah learned that you need to heat your coffee cup with hot water before pouring in your brew. Otherwise, the coffee will taste bitter. Did you know that?

This writer received a complimentary tour for the purposes of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.

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